Monday, September 7, 2020

Deeper Understanding via Deafness

I've got a bad case of "musician's ears", my self-flattering term for "deafness" (I explained how it came to this here).

I don't always wear my hearing aids (they play poorly with the stretchy ear loops in face masks). And my hearing loss is, alas, right at human vocal range. So it's hard to understand speech, especially from a distance or in a noisy room.

But there's a lot to be learned from despecification - forcing attention from the specifics to the overarching contour. Attention determines perspective (aka “framing”), and deficiency is only deficient from a close-up framing

For example, I learned a lot one night from listening to political speeches without paying attention to the actual words (not from deafness, but just exasperation with the posturing cliché of it all). As I wrote here:
I'm watching the DNC, and every politician is giving The Speech.

Not a speech. It's always the same speech. The same cadences. The same tone. The same pacing. You don't need to speak English to get the full idea. Even with the sound turned off, you know The Speech. I don't know why I'm watching this. I know every single thing before it happens.
In that same piece, I went on to expand the observation into an all-encompassing credo for human perspective and creativity. All that from ignoring the words! Filtering out the trees is a terrific trick for seeing the forest! 

As a kid, I delighted in fleeting moments of forgetting, say, what I'd had for dinner the night before, or which movie I'd watched, or who I'd spent time with. Rather than strain to remember the details, I'd comfortably relax into the vacuum and use the opportunity to gauge my actual raw feelings toward the forgotten. Often I'd be surprised. I thought I was ambivalent toward a person or thing, but remembering the residual flavor of the pure experience, divorced from mental associations and backstories, sometimes I found that my genuine feelings were not what I'd thought. I came to value moments of forgetting, and still do. It offers a valuable fresh perspective; a new framing. 

So now, in my Helen Keller-ish deafness, rather than feel alarmed about how everyone murmurs incomprehensibly, I eagerly accept the fresh perspective: the opportunity to detach content from speech. Frankly, most people are not offering sterling, galvanizing verbal content, anyway. They're spraying memes, clichés and platitudes. As anyone who's socialized without speaking the language quickly comes to learn, the specifics are mostly just yadda-yadda. Every politician gives the same speech, and your cousin Vinnie is no less predictable. 

Snark stands in for humor, canned soothing fluff stands in for empathy, and most people are mostly just talking to themselves most of the time, convincing themselves (“It’s all good!!”)  they're a certain sort of person - an identity/personality type they originally copied from movies or TV and/or from their social circles. As I recently wrote:  
[People] eagerly make themselves clones of a certain type of person (have you never noticed there are only a few dozen models of people?).
It's especially easy to note all this when you're despecified by being too deaf to understand. It proves something you'd long suspected: everyone's mostly just doing canned movie/tv dialog, to suit the dramatic scene they’re watching themselves play in their head. How often do people go off-script? Is this really a world of freshness and creativity? No, if speech warranted attention, we’d all be motivated to listen more. We’ve evolved into a society of shoddy listeners because there’s not much to hear. 

[Related: I once explained how courtesy and politeness refer to a staunch commitment to keep up the dull patter without startling anyone via off-script improvised surprises.]

Weaving all these strands together, yesterday I sat in my car while a young woman wandered toward me, chatting on her phone. She wound up 15 feet from me, and stayed there for a while. Unable to make out the words, I heard it as music, and, spontaneously and very quietly - under my mask - began to join in. I got better and better at it. It was easy, because no actual words were involved. It was all score with no libretto. After ten minutes of singing along, I was fully synchronized. It was such an exhilerating experience that I recorded a sample into my phone:

I know; I know. It sounds like I'm mocking her. But that's not it. This is quite faithfully what I, with my shitty ears, hear. I'm not caricaturing at all. I feel like I've distilled her, captured the overarching music of her self-portrayal in the world. These are the aural gestures she deliberately projects. The words scarcely matter (I couldn't imagine being surprised by a word she ever spoke). Gleaning her soul without understanding a word makes me feel less deficient in my, it explains some things about the world.

This is entirely her choice. This is what she's going for. If she didn't want to sound this way, she wouldn't. There is no instinct here; it's a matter of identity preference. Remember "vocal fry", the lightly-raspy speech affected by a certain stratum of urban female in the 00s? Nobody does it anymore. It's passé. And this is one of its successors; a variety of what more serious-minded women call "babytalk".

Admit it: you know this woman! Most likely several of them! If you can rise above the oddness of my endeavor, you'll have to agree it gave you a sense of deja vu. This illuminates my recent postings on "seeming" vs "being". Seemers can be encapsulated in this way. Doers cannot. The overarching contour of a creative person's speech reveals little of value about the person. Seemers, by contrast, aim to be easily encapsulated. 

This ties into my explanation of autism. Autistic people (extra "doing" oriented, with no facility for - or comprehension of - "seeming") are unable to parse posing, aka "seeming". To them, wordless murmuring may sound superficially familiar, but the personality type being conveyed  - and which I've keyed in on - would not register. The projection of evocative personality wallpaper - a shortcut to telegraphing the "sort of person I am" doesn't land for an autistic person, who considers the literal words. This is  frustrating for non-autisic people, who are given the creepy impression that their special uniqueness (i.e. their cloned personality type) isn't landing. It's not working. The fault must be with the autistic person, who clearly isn’t empathic.

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